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Sticker Stalkers

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City clerk Jim Laski has a love-hate relationship with publicity.

Publicity from a 1992 City Council revolt he helped lead, as alderman of the 23rd Ward, against Mayor Daley's proposed $48.4 million property tax hike? Loved it.

Publicity as city clerk in 1996 for telling the aldermen during budget hearings that city employees owed $1.5 million in unpaid parking tickets while Daley was proposing a $9 million property tax increase? Looooved it!

Publicity when Channel Two news cameras caught city clerk employees playing hooky on city time in 2000, even golfing with Laski? Hated it. Especially when an investigation by city inspector general Alexander Vroustouris recommended firing three top Laski employees and suspending one.

Another politician might decide to fade into the background, quietly lighting candles every week to the Blessed Virgin for getting through the 2003 election unopposed. Laski apparently enjoys the attention too much. Still, he's wary.

Take his latest encounter with the spotlight, after he asked the City Council to let him send investigators into city-licensed private garages to sniff out cars registered in Chicago but without city vehicle stickers. In November the council agreed to allow investigators into 496 garages where over half the spaces are open to nonresidents.

When Laski first presented the idea to aldermen during the budget committee hearings in October, he started out strong--if he hadn't been sitting down he would have been swaggering as he described the plan. "And I'm gonna tell ya right now, aldermen, there are not hundreds, there are millions of dollars out there in uncollected revenues. Millions," he barked. "We have comments in the newspaper about people who live in these high-rises who are indignant about it, who say, 'I drive from my high-rise to Naperville, and I don't need a sticker.' Well, unless we wanna change the ordinance to say anybody who lives in a high-rise shouldn't have a vehicle sticker, then we need to go after these people."

Laski relished the first few questions from aldermen, particularly when Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale asked if Laski could charge people for not buying city stickers in the past.

Then freshman alderman Howard Brookins Jr., of the 21st Ward, asked why Laski couldn't just compare records of sticker purchases with the secretary of state's car-registration records and mail the scofflaws tickets.

Laski began getting huffy. Merging computer files doesn't capture the public imagination as well as investigators creeping around dark garages. He quickly cut Brookins off. (A spokesman for the city clerk's office says the idea's being studied.)

The real trouble started with veteran alderman Burton Natarus, whose 42nd Ward includes the Loop and the Gold Coast. He was concerned about angering high-rise constituents who can afford to live in some of the most expensive zip codes in the country but won't cough up $75 for a city sticker. Although he didn't put it that way.

"So you're saying when you get a [garage] license from the city of Chicago, that waives all your rights of privacy," Natarus said. "Well, I can understand an inspector going into a garage and checking for safety, in other words, fire hazards, building violations, things like that. But you're not doing that. What you're doing is entering the garage to collect money."

"We're collecting a tax--it's a wheel tax," said Laski testily.

"A wheel tax," said Natarus.

"And I said, aldermen, if all of you choose to exclude these people from purchasing a vehicle sticker, then do it legislatively," Laski retorted.

"I'm not doing anything," said Natarus.

"Now, now, wait a minute. Hold one minute," said Seventh Ward alderman William Beavers, chairman of the budget committee and thus regent of the council chambers during the budget hearings. "We don't have to do it legislatively. OK? We don't have to say nothin'. We just don't have to pass your ordinance. All right?"

"Correct," mumbled Laski.

"You don't have to tell us how to run the City Council," Beavers continued.

"I'm not tellin' ya that--"

"You're the clerk. OK?" Beavers plowed on. "You introduced an ordinance. If we wanna pass it we pass it. If we don't wanna pass it we don't pass it. OK?"

Laski never really recovered.

Natarus finished by observing that the investigators "are people that walk up to the door, the garage door opens, and they go in and they look at all the cars....Who knows that they're not gonna do other things?" When I asked him later, he insisted he didn't mean he thought city clerk investigators would steal things out of the garages.

Natarus and Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston both asked whether investigators would snoop around in the parts of a residential high-rise garage reserved for building residents.

A lawyer from Laski's office answered that the investigators would ticket only in the public sections.

"You gotta be kidding," scoffed Hairston.

Afterward Laski was irritable talking to reporters, who repeated all the aldermen's questions. He didn't get to boast about how much money his office would rake in. And he had to defend another proposal--raising the vehicle sticker fee for SUVs $15. Reporters pestered him about how the city would define an SUV.

"We're working on how many SUVs there are--again it's a weight distinction," Laski spluttered. "I drive a Dodge Durango. It weighs, I think, 4,400 pounds."

Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman asked if that was why the city was proposing a weight limit starting at 4,500 pounds. (It later passed.)

"No! I'm not givin' ya tomorrow's headline!" Laski snapped. "We're not even sure if we're gonna go with this weight factor!" (The Dodge Web site lists the lightest 2004 Durango at 4,692 pounds.)

Nevertheless, the council eventually approved Laski's proposals. The city needs the money, and why should anyone feel sorry for rich people who buy SUVs or blow off buying a city sticker?

So last week Laski got the headlines he wanted. He held a press conference and announced that in just five days investigators checked 40 facilities and wrote 1,007 tickets, generating $166,000. Based on those results, he thinks his office will collect an extra $6 million next year, for a city that just balanced its 2004 budget with at least 600 layoffs. If this were Glengarry Glen Ross he'd at least get the set of steak knives.

Despite his golfing buddies, Laski's always finding new ways to put money in the city's coffers. His accomplishments also include a south-side satellite office and a genuinely useful Web site. And of course he regularly cheeses off Mayor Daley.

You know what? Forget the steak knives. I'd give him the Cadillac.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.

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